The gateway to fish the Patagonia in Argentina and Chile is either Buenos Aires or Santiago, and for this trip I decided to fly into Buenos Aires and out of Santiago to experience both cities. Last time I came to South America I cashed in 100,000 Alaska Airline miles for a first class ticket on LAN to Buenos Aires via Los Angeles. Back then first class was an experience. I was the only one in the cabin, and for the ten hour journey two flight attendants stuffed me like a high-altitude veal; caviar, vodka, champagne, huge prawns, and various wine selections. I stumbled out of the plane in BA and fell into the backseat of a hired car to sleep during the ride to the hotel.
Most of the world has abandoned that kind of first class, and for this trip I instead cashed in piles of Delta miles for a business class ticket (Delta has not had first class for eight years) to BA via Atlanta. Nothing like LAN first class – but a big comfy seat with a good video system and luke-warm chicken. I flew all night and arrived in Buenos Aires at nine in the morning.
Before leaving I had purchased a new case to carry my expensive fly rods and reels as a carry-on. The Orvis bag was about the size and shape of a violin case, and throughout the trip many people assumed I was carrying a musical instrument. As I boarded the flight in Atlanta the flight attendant asked if I played in an orchestra. Not making the connection to the case, and wondering why she would think I was a musician, I decided to just smile and nod. For some reason there was a marked improvement in attention and service, and I discovered that for some reason people have a strange respect for classical musicians; at least more than they respect fishermen. The cab driver in Buenos Aires smiled broadly as he loaded my luggage. “You play”, he asked as he moved his arm back and forth. I was tired and jet lagged and initially thought he was making a poor attempt at a fly casting motion, and again smiled and nodded. “I looove musica”, he smiled into the rear view mirror as we drove. “Bach very good”. Not wanting to burst his bubble I didn’t explain my definition of playing differed from his.
(Let me interrupt this travelogue to insert a business idea here. Very top of mind stuff. Carry-on suitcases designed to look like much more important cases. What would service be like if you carried an aerospace grade aluminum briefcase that was actually handcuffed to your arm? Would you get an automatic first class upgrade if you showed up at the gate with a trumpet case that said “New York Philharmonic” on the side – even if it just contained your iPad and a couple changes of underwear? Anyway..)
My first hints if you come to Buenos Aires. They now charge a $140 entry fee to the country. The fee covers you for ten years – but several people in line were suprised when they reached customs that there was such an expensive fee. They do accept credit cards for the fee. Also, don’t be in a hurry to exchange money for Pesos. Most Argentinians prefer dollars anyway, as the Peso seems to devalue every few minutes, and the exchange rates in the airport are not good. There are cab stands right outside the baggage claim, and you can pay the roughly $40 fee with a credit card. And speaking of credit cards….. before you leave check to see if your card charges foreign fees, as most do. I used my Platinum Amex, as they do not charge a fee. Capital One also offers Visa cards that do not charge a fee.
Once again using up old frequent traveler miles, I booked a room at the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt. While I typically only stay in Hyatt’s for business travel, Park Hyatt’s are a completely different hotel chain and experience; a worthy competitor to The Four Seasons. The Palacio Duhau is a beautiful hotel housed in a grand old palace to which they have added a new wing. The palace and the new section are connected by an underground art gallery. The rooms are elegant, sleek and modern; the service is quiet and efficient. There is a first class spa and gym.
The Park Hyatt sits in the Recoleta district of the city, a luxurious area that reminded me a lot of the Upper East Side in Manhattan. It is a block from the city’s grandest hotel, The Alvear Palace, and the area is full of high-end boutiques and restaurants. It is close to the cemetery, one of the city’s main tourist attractions. The side streets are filled with wonderful brownstones, and this is obviously an area where the wealthy live. After relaxing for the afternoon and exploring the neighborhood, I made dinner plans. Americans should be aware that in much of South America 10 or 11 pm is the normal dinner hour, so I had plenty of time to consider my options.
Since I am not a huge meat eater, and I knew the fishing lodges would be a carnivore’s delight, I wanted seafood for dinner before entering meatville where only Malbec is served. I found a terrific seafood-oriented place, Fervor, a couple blocks from the hotel. For those that favor an after dinner smoke, there is also a great cigar bar, Prado y Neptune, which features a great selection of Havana’s best, just down the street. Argentinians are among the world’s most attractive people, especially the well-dressed rich Argentinians, so it was a pleasure to sit in the restaurant and observe the crowd. Afterwards I roamed the streets in the neighborhood, admiring the wonderful architecture.
I had one full day to explore the city the next day, so I signed up for the quintessential tourist tour; Buenos Aires in four hours, which took us to just the main sites; the Presidential Palace, a quaint touristy section of the city designed to get us to buy stuff and get our photos taken with Tango dancers, the very interesting cemetery where the Argentinian hero Evita and a host of others are buried. Our guide was an attractive and fairly political young Buenos Aires woman. The most disturbing site they took us to was the opening to a hidden bunker underneath a freeway overpass where a few decades ago the military dictatorship brought protestors to torture and murder. Now the opening to the bunker is covered with memorials to the murdered.
I am particularly interested in countries that at some point opt for dictatorship – as most South American countries tend to do at some point – and I was asking her how this occurs. While Argentina is a democracy now, it has been a dictatorship in fairly recent history. Our guide was extremely cynical about politics and Argentinian politics in particular. “Our government has always been corrupt, and is still corrupt”, she explains. “And even though we have a smart population we never get things right. There are economic problems. Warfare between the rich and the poor. Always we have the inflation. So people get frustrated, and it is easy for the dictator to take over. They make promises that they can never keep, and the people go along with it”. Our guide was similarly unenthusiastic about her country’s future. “The inflation is starting again, and our government is just printing more money so it will not be good. We are even starting up with the British again over the Falkland Islands. There are not even any Argentinians in the Falkland Islands. This is all just a distraction to keep us from not thinking about the economy,” she says sadly.
There is something incongruent about it all for the casual visitor. The beautiful city, full of vibrant fun-loving people drinking and dancing until the wee hours, that somehow just feels like it is just around the corner from disaster.